Saturday, May 30, 2015

Shostakovich Cantatas

Erato 0825646166664 (2015)
Shostakovich Cantatas
The Execution of Stepan Razin Op. 119
The Song of the Forests Op. 81
The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland Op. 90
Alexi Tanovitski (bass), Konstantin Andreyev (tenor)
Estonian National Concert Choir
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Jarvi

If you get this gloriously-recorded disc for no other reason, get it for the revelatory, ineluctably electrifying performance of Shostakovich's 1964 setting of Yevgeniy Yevtushenko's The Execution of Stepan Razin, the composer's opus 119. Cut from the same sardonic, darkly brilliant cloth as the 13th Symphony from two years earlier, also to texts of Yevtushenko (sometimes referred to as "The Soviet Bob Dylan"), this dramatically compelling cantata--still too little known in the West--recounts the gory details of the famous Cossack rebel's 1671 execution in Moscow, with probing--and occasionally disturbing-- emphasis on the reaction of the witnessing masses. The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir under Estonian-American conductor Paavo Jarvi offer a stunningly visceral performance, capturing the score in all its lurid ferocity and gut-wrenching dynamism. The recorded sound is magnificent, aptly resonant and unapologetically full-blown.

The two earlier cantatas, well-performed and presented here in their best possible light, rate as glittering curiosities, though--make no mistake--this is impeccably crafted music with occasional flashes of anachronistic brilliance. It's just not "great" music, and certainly not great Shostakovich. Mawkishly grandiose, bombastic, saccharine paeans to Stalin and the vaunted glories of Stalinism, The Song of the Forests Op. 81 from 1949, and The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland Op. 90 from 1952 are settings of nationalist doggerel by the Soviet poet Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky, later revised to reflect the new political reality following Khrushchev's 1957 denunciation of his predecessor. (The original versions of the texts are presented on this recording.)  The music is relentlessly consonant, and stylistically reactionary; in fact, so utterly un-Shostakovich-like that, if asked to listen to these pieces unaware of their composer, many listeners could be forgiven for an honest mistake in naming Glazunov, Rachmaninoff, or even Glinka. The Song of the Forests does have its moments; the spritely Glinka-esque second movement, and the sprawling, grandiloquent fugal finale with its interesting orchestral touches make for entertaining listening. In the end, though, it's all rather empty, as if someone served up an ornate dish of cotton candy and called it a gourmet dessert. Shostakovich's youthful forays into socialist realism--the 2nd and 3rd symphonies from the 1920s  or even the tunefully populist 12th from 1960--are modernist masterpieces by comparison. Unredeemed even by the composer's signature tongue-in-cheek banality, the cantatas contain no hidden anti-communist messages, no sly inside jokes, or furtive, court-jester-ish nose-thumbing. The composer  reportedly retreated to his Leningrad hotel room following the November 1949 premiere of Song of the Forests, buried his head under a pillow, and wept before drowning his apparent embarrassment in a vodka bottle. While it's doubtful these recordings will elicit a similar response from listeners (and, in any case, I strongly suspect that this anecdote is apocryphal), this often forced, artificially "pretty" music wears thin fairly fast.

Erato, unfortunately, does not include original texts or translations in the booklet accompanying the disc. The essay by Andrew Huth overplays the now more-or-less discredited ideas of Simon Volkov, portraying the composer in starkly black-and-white terms as an artistic martyr, suffering relentlessly under the philistine constraints of the Soviet system. Certainly true to some degree, but persuasive arguments can be made, in light of correspondence made available to scholars since 1991, that the man who aggressively curried Stalin's favor, lobbying for every benefit available to elites within the Soviet regime, going so far as to join the Communist Party as late as 1960 (when it was no longer necessary for survival or professional advancement), and further refusing to stand in solidarity with bona fide dissidents who were supposedly his friends--Rostrapovich, Vishnevskaya etc.-- was, in all likelihood, a perfectly normal artistic pragmatist living in times that allowed very little space for compromise one way or the other.

Wholeheartedly recommended for the world-class performance and superb recording of Op. 119. Shostakovich complete-ists will want it for the earlier cantatas as well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Shostakovich and Petrenko

Naxos 8.50111 (11-disc set) (2015)
Shostakovich: Complete Symphonies
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

As August 9th, 2015 will mark the fortieth anniversary of Shostakovich's death, and 2016 the 110th anniversary of the composer's birth, it's more than likely that the recording industry will be getting into the lucrative spirit of commemoration with all sorts of retrospective box sets and special re-issues-- there's just something about that "0" or "5" at the end of a year that no marketing executive has ever been able to resist. Not that this is altogether a bad thing; I tend to collect Shostakovich records with a kind of manic, knee-jerk euphoria, and never miss the chance to hear the latest interpretation of the 14th Symphony (invariably measuring it against the classic 1973 Rostrapovich reading) or once again take a chance on a new ensemble's traversal of the quartet cycle (I still like the Fitzwilliam Quartet's L'Oiseau-Lyre recordings from the mid-70s best of all).

So--as if I needed an excuse!-- it seems appropriate to take a look at the recently-completed symphonic cycle by the exciting young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko with his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, recorded for Naxos between 2009 and 2014.

It is exciting to hear a complete cycle with a single orchestra led by the same conductor and recorded over a relatively brief period of time. Even Haitink's benchmark 1977-1984 traversal for Decca, consistently fine as it is, features two different ensembles, and the recordings bridge the late-analog and early-digital eras. Marus Jansons' well-regarded 2006 centennial box set for EMI (Warner 0946 3 65300 2) features recordings made between 1988 and 2005 with no fewer than eight orchestras, while the mostly-marvelous Rostrapovich box set from the same label (Warner 2564 64177-2 (2007)) is a veritable patchwork quilt of recordings from at least three orchestras and as many labels made over the course of a quarter century (1973-1997). 

Happily, Naxos' recorded sound is consistently excellent throughout all eleven discs in the series, limpid, highly detailed, well-balanced, and natural, albeit at times a bit on the dry side. The "Babi Yar" symphony (#13) was particularly impressive in the way the large male chorus and orchestra were placed to optimal advantage, each displaying maximum potency without overwhelming one another, though the bass soloist seems a little too close to the mic at times.

Petrenko's interpretations aren't quite as consistently fine as the recording quality, ranging as they do from the near-ingenious to the mildly disappointing. The lugubrious pacing in the opening movement of the 6th with its towering, simple, sturdy themes, might possibly be justified by the highlighting of greater interior detail, but playing it as a virtual dirge seems mildly perverse at best, not only hobbling the music's dramatic momentum, but sapping it of grandeur and purpose. (To me this movement has always suggested a grave optimism, and a stalwart determination to keep moving forward even in the face of one's darkest fears. My benchmark for the work still remains Bernard Haitink's  performance with the Concertgebouw for Decca.) Add to this, Naxos' decision to couple the 6th with the thematically-impoverished, decidedly sub-par 12th and at least one disc in the series is a wash. (Admittedly, Petrenko does his best to make a silk purse out of an embarrassingly threadbare sow's ear.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Petrenko's reading of the "Leningrad" (#7) is among the most brilliantly cogent, well-paced, and downright musically engaging on record. For once the conductor gives this music the real dignity that is its due, as opposed to so many who, taking the obvious route, have tended to magnify the melodramatic and bathetic aspects of the score. Petrenko convinces us that the 7th truly is one of the great symphonies of the 20th century. Likewise, his 8th and 10th are absolutely superb; his 4th a stunning revelation of fire and passion; the programatic 11th (the first release in the series) engagingly paced and satisfyingly musical; the 9th aptly athletic, joyously fleet-footed, rollicking and ebullient.

The two early forays into "socialist realism" with chorus (#2 "To October" and #3 "First of May") are quite listenable, especially as Petrenko does not treat the music either as bijou pastiche or cartoonish caricature. (These two symphonies have always been something of a guilty pleasure of mine, appealing to my abiding interest in Soviet history.)  Coupled with a very fine reading of the inscrutably wonderful 15th, Petrenko's 1st could do with a bit more humor and buoyancy, but is quite serviceable, especially with so many competing versions to consider. (I like Eugene Ormandy's delectable 1960 reading with the Philadelphia Orchestra for CBS (LP: MS 6124) (CD: Sony Originals 88697858322 (2011 re-issue))

Last to be released, the two penultimate works in the cycle are masterpieces of the highest order, and Petrenko brings his best self to their interpretation, making these recordings some of the finest in the Shostakovich discography to date. (I still give the laurel to Haitink and Ormandy.) Petrenko deftly captures the dark sweep and sardonic ebullience of the 13th, its quasi-schizophrenic contrasts and mood swings brought to glorious, terrifying, unforgettable life.  This recording of "Babi Yar" also happens to feature some of the best choral diction I've ever heard in a large-scale work.

The brooding, death-haunted 14th with its stripped-down chamber-like ensemble and solo singers front and center, gets one of the best interpretations since Rostrapovich, bringing all the passion and madness of the score to brilliant, hair-raising life. Bass Alexander Vinogradov, carries all the dark weight the score requires, while soprano Gal James, while not quite up to Galina Vishnevskaya's frighteningly inimitable standards, nonetheless brings a probingly dramatic and emotionally complex lyricism to her part. (Haitink's reading is superb, but his opting to have the texts sung in their original languages instead of Russian, is an irritating flaw, and I have always felt that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's voice was too lightweight an instrument for this work.)

This, finally, leaves the 5th

The interpretive traditions which have grown up around this symphony like a petrified forest of the imagination, find far too many conductors treating the work as glorified circus music, half-heartedly recycled Mahler, or the ironic soundtrack to some old Soviet newsreel. Because the work is at once easily accessible and wildly popular, certain commentators have regarded it as the perfect whetstone on which to grind their conspicuously dull ideological axes. (Solomon Volkov tried to portray the composer as a psychologically-battered victim of the Stalinist system, and a closeted anti-communist crusader, a view which fit in well with the political tenor of the times. More recently, correspondence has come to light which paints a decidedly less black-and-white portrait of a patriotic Soviet citizen who actively curried the dictator's favor, and sought out every available benefit afforded to the elites of the communist state. I highly recommend Michael O'Donnell's excellent 2011 article in The Nation.)  By welcome contrast, Petrenko eschews the bombast, effectively jettisoning much of the extra-musical programatic baggage that has so long weighed down the work. Was Shostakovich's heart really in this composition? Was it little more than an exercise in submission and obedience? In approaching the score as absolute music (as he also does with the 7th and 11th) Petrenko reveals a serious, tautly-conceived composition that stands well on its own, without need of gratuitous histrionics. To some, this approach may seem to lack fire; but listeners who want grandiosity or bombast can always avail themselves of the old Leonard Bernstein interpretation with the New York Philharmonic on CBS. I find Petrenko's 5th, like so many of the other recordings in this series, refreshingly thoughtful, and above all, upliftingly musical.

On balance, I can enthusiastically recommend this marvelous Shostakovich cycle.


Naxos 8.572396 (2011)
Shostakovich: Symphony #1 in f minor Op. 10 (1925)
Symphony #3 in E-flat Major "First of May" Op. 20 (1928)
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.572708 (2012)

Shostakovich: Symphony #2 in B Major "To October" Op. 14 (1927)
Symphony #15 in A Major Op. 141 (1972)
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.573188 (2013)

Shostakovich: Symphony #4 in c minor Op. 43 (1935-36)
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8. 572167 (2009)

Shostakovich: Symphony #5 in d minor Op. 47 (1937)
Symphony #9 in E-flat Major Op. 70 (1945)
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.572658 (2011)

Shostakovich: Symphony #6 in b minor Op. 54 (1939)
Symphony #12 in d minor "The Year 1917" Op. 112 (1961)
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.573057 (2013)

Shostakovich: Symphony #7 "Leningrad" Op. 60 (1941)
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.572392 (2010) 

Shostakovich: Symphony #8 in c minor Op. 65 (1943)
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.572461 (2010)

Shostakovich: Symphony #10 in e minor Op. 93 (1953)
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.572082 (2009)

Shostakovich: Symphony #11 in g minor "The Year 1911" Op. 103 (1957)
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.573218 (2014)

Shostakovich: Symphony #13 in b-flat minor "Babi Yar" Op. 113 (1962)
Alexander Vinogradov (bass)
Men's Voices of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir 
Huddleston Choral Society
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.573132 (2014)

Shostakovich: Symphony #14 Op. 135 (1969)
Gal James (soprano)
Alexander Vinogradov (bass)
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic


Naxos 8.572082 (2009): Symphony #11
Naxos 8.572167 (2009): Symphonies #s 5 and 9
Naxos 8.572392 (2010): Symphony #8
Naxos 8.572461 (2010): Symphony #10
Naxos 8.572396 (2011): Symphonies #s 1 and 3
Naxos 8.572658 (2011): Symphonies #s 6 and 12
Naxos 8.572708 (2012): Symphonies #s 2 and 15
Naxos 8.573057 (2013): Symphony #7
Naxos 8.573188 (2013): Symphony #4
Naxos 8.573132 (2014): Symphony #14
Naxos 8.573218 (2014): Symphony #13